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Effective communication for the progressive dairy producer

Jason Irwin Published on 19 January 2010

In the spring of 1996 I was attending the University of Delaware while still living at my parents’ home in Sussex County, Delaware.

In this area of the U.S. the agricultural economy is based on poultry, grain and truck crops. This is quite the contrast to my present home in Franklin County, which is the second- largest producer of dairy products in Pennsylvania.In between classes one day, I met with a young ‘start-up’ watermelon farmer. He explained how he had rented farm ground starting with only 10 acres and was now the proud owner of 150 acres, located in between our hometown and the UD satellite campus. Since he too was enrolled in classes, the farmer realized that extra help would be needed for the farm operation’s first year spring rush. Those spring preparations provided loads of fun – plowing, laying plastic, getting tractors stuck and just being young in general. Once the full harvest crew came on board during mid-June, those days would be considered the ‘honeymoon phase.’ During this period the most common greeting on the farm, between coworkers, was ‘What took you so long?’ and ‘Where’ve you been?’ The owner, only a few years older than most of his employees, had little experience in employee management, leading to minimal employee oversight. This created an atmosphere that was detrimental to the maximum productivity of the farm and his bottom line.

Allowing this kind of behavior was deemed acceptable since a limited harvest season and the pace of the completed work were given the highest priority, regardless of hurt feelings or physically escalating arguments. The seasonality of the work also gave plenty of time in the winter for everyone’s emotional scars to heal, and more often than not, most members of the crew would come back every June, ready to ‘Bring the fruit!’



Unlike a watermelon farm, every day is harvest day on a dairy farm. As I have seen on a fellow dairy producer’s business card: Hours of Operation – 24/7/365. It is because of this continually operating mindset that a dairy manager must create an atmosphere that is not only the best for the business and the welfare of the livestock but also the best for all the ‘family’ members of the farm. Putting communication and overall employee unity above all else will pay the highest dividends.

Three different groups of people must all communicate effectively to operate a healthy dairy business: owners, herd managers and other employees, and veterinarians, nutritionists, and sales consultants.


• A detailed mission statement of the dairy should exist and be presented and understood by all new employees and potential consultants.

• Herd performance goals will not be reached unless all parties involved understand why the goals are important and information on progress is readily updated and posted or communicated.


• If the economic outlook of the dairy does not look good, share that information with employees. If employees don’t understand the reason why no raises have been handed out, they are more likely to resent their job, their employer and most importantly the cows they care for.

• There is a strong need for owners to recognize their employees’ strengths and weaknesses and put them in a position for ultimate success.

The owner who is my direct supervisor once said to me during a rather tense conversation concerning herd health, “Don’t change what makes you a good herdsman, but please take into consideration the big picture and others’ feelings.” I was allowing my emotions to guide my conversation and lose sight of our true goal. The owner was applauding my tenacity for achieving supreme herd health numbers, but carefully warning me against placing blame and in turn creating an even bigger problem.

Herd manager and other employees020410_irwin_manager_hat

• Provide the owner and other consultants with actual data rather than with feelings, exaggerations and emotions. All credibility is lost if the answer to “How many clinical mastitis cases did you have today?” … is “a bazillion!”

• If you are a parlor manager or supervisor, be willing to explain protocols over and over. Repetition of the proper protocols is the only way for a parlor operator to develop good habits and meet expectations.


• Other non-supervisors must realize that their position is just as important as the owners, herd managers or supervisors. A successful parlor does not exist without parlor operators that believe in themselves and their value to an operation.


Veterinarians, nutritionists, sales consultants
• Do the best you can to have a personal relationship with the farmers you help. This does not mean you need to attend birthday parties, baptisms and graduations. It means that you know them well enough to be comfortable expressing ALL concerns you have about their business, because problems can only get worse if avoided.

• Compare apples to apples. Our farm was regularly visited by a sales consultant that really wanted to have our business. This individual would ‘number-drop’ all sorts of benchmarks that a handful of his herds were achieving. Upon further investigation the owner and I realized the herds he mentioned were not good comparisons to our operation. I will be the first to admit that high production, on 40 cows or 4,000 cows, is admirable, but the information and expertise a consultant is attempting to provide must first be applicable to your operation.

• “Please don’t feed the bears.” Feeding the rumor mill only diminishes one’s credibility and professionalism. Most recently on one of the herd’s bi-weekly veterinarian consultations, I was greeted with, “I’m glad to see you here, I heard you got FIRED?!” The veterinarian was not fueling this untruth, only revealing it to me. He was without fault, but any talk of farms going bankrupt or enrolling in CWT, without coming directly from the owners themselves, should be considered untrue and not passed along, even if the intention is humorous. I have never heard a funny story about someone losing their business or job.

Take-home message
Thirteen years removed from the hot and muggy watermelon field, I am pleased to say that the most common greeting at Mercer Vu Farm is “Buenos dias” or “How’s it going, do you guys need any help?”

As many dairy farm employees do, I feel very fortunate to have a fulfilling career that provides a wholesome, nutritious food product to the world. Regardless of job level, we should all strive for an open and honest relationship with the many people involved in our operation and our consumers.

This begins directly with how we communicate with each other. It could be something as simple as turning off the skid-loader instead of attempting to yell over the noise or waiting until the herdsman is done checking fresh cows to discuss an issue.

Dairy producers face many challenges in which they have no control, such as weather, input costs and milk pricing. All people involved must be certain that communication never becomes uncontrollable. Remember… giving communication and employee unity priority will pay high dividends. PD

Jason Irwin
Herd Manager
Mercer Vu Farm Inc.